KYOTO – The EU single market came into being in 1992, transforming Europe into the world’s largest free trade zone. The early success of the EU single market manifested the immense significance of regionalism and an increasing economic interdependence.
On June 23, the British went to the polls to determine their country’s future with the European Union. Shockingly, a majority voted for Britain’s departure from the EU. Soon after, European nations were busy grappling with the reasons and ramifications of the referendum results. In Britain, David Cameron declared he would resign as prime minister, admitting his inability to convince the public of the advantages of remaining in the EU. Economists around the world anticipated the domino effects of Brexit on the global economy. It was reported that some EU members might begin to ponder whether they should follow the U.K.
It is useful to assess how the Brexit may have offered valuable lessons to Southeast Asia, in particular to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is often compared with the EU in the context of their organizational progress.
Although ASEAN has never claimed to imitate the EU’s developmental pattern, its leaders have undoubtedly been inspired by the European achievements. Needless to say, the ASEAN initiatives on the making of its first charter in 2007 and the launching of the ASEAN Community in 2015 were eerily similar to the way in which the EU moved itself into being a single market. Hence, Brexit will serve well as a study case of how ASEAN can avoid its own disintegration.
Analytically, Britain’s departure owes to the unequal growth witnessed within the EU. The British public had in recent years complained of the massive flood of immigrants into the U.K., leading to a crisis of employment and rising inequality. Today, Polish farmers are taking over farm work in the central plains of England. The invasion of foreign workers also caused a sociological impact on the British, producing anti-immigration sentiment among the populace. Meanwhile, they criticized the misallocation of government funds to aid the large number of migrants, deepening a sense of xenophobia within the country.
The income gap and growth disparity in ASEAN is ostensibly worse than that in the EU. The newer members, including Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, will find it harder to catch up with more developed ASEAN economies following the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community, especially in reducing wage gap and finding the right balance in their labor policies. Indonesian scholar A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi averred that the concerns of the Indonesian public in the run-up to the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community earlier this year were that the country would be flooded by labor from neighboring countries as a result of the community’s “freer movement of skilled labor.”
Hence, ASEAN needs to ensure that economic growth within the organization is shared and that the real benefits of the ASEAN Economic Community will go beyond the state level and filter down to that of regular people.
Educating the population about the importance of regionalism is also imperative. American analysts Michael H. Fuchs and Stephanie Merchant argue Brexit showed that citizens’ education about regional institutions is vital. The British lacked accurate knowledge about the EU and its relationship with their country. Fuchs and Merchant said, “Shortly after Brexit polls closed, Google Trends reported a spike in the number of people who googled ‘what is the EU.’ Similarly, a 2013 EU survey found that nearly half of EU citizens said that they did not understand how the EU worked.”
Within ASEAN, similar experiences have been detected. The findings in a study by Eric Thompson and Chulanee Thianthai on ASEAN awareness were fascinating. Those participating in the survey were asked about their attitudes toward ASEAN as a whole, knowledge about the region and ASEAN, orientation toward the region and the countries in it, sources of information about the region and aspirations for regional integration and cooperation.
Although participants in the survey from countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar were enthusiastic about ASEAN and obviously knew more about regional integration, those from the older member states expressed ambivalence about ASEAN and their lack of knowledge about the current development of the organization.
In the lead-up to the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community, governments willingly allotted sizable funds to promote the event, but only a quarter of the ASEAN population really understood what the organization is. Posters and banners celebrating the ASEAN Community were found everywhere in Southeast Asia. Yet, citizens were not informed of its true significance. And the fact that English is the operating language within ASEAN does not help the population engage in regional activities.
Equally critical is the fact that ASEAN quite often shies away from discussing difficult, or even controversial, issues confronting the development of its organization. ASEAN members are quite often content to sweep such difficulties under the rug, postponing any attempt to solve problems until they spark a regional crisis.
The South China Sea dispute is one example underlining the ineffectiveness of ASEAN in dealing with a contentious issue involving major powers outside the region.
While it is unthinkable to predict an exit of any members from ASEAN soon, Brexit serves to remind the grouping that national interests can trump regional cooperation. What ASEAN members must bear in mind is that each has its own vulnerable points, be they political or economic. Without ASEAN, members would have to stand alone facing all sorts of challenges in today’s more competitive world.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.